Text size

Bad times bring out the best in some people. Most of us remain passive, even willfully blind, in the face of great crimes that we see perpetrated on others, whether they are strangers or our next-door neighbors. But there will always be someone, probably just an ordinary decent person, to whom this rule doesn't apply - someone who will try to do the right thing at any cost, risking his or her well-being or even, perhaps, life itself. Ezra Nawi is such a man. He's a plumber by profession, a Jewish Jerusalemite, and he is also the unsung hero of the Israeli peace movement in the south Hebron hills. It's largely thanks to him that the Palestinian farmers in this area are still living on their land. Unless something happens to change the current prognosis, an Israeli court will sentence Nawi to jail on July 1.

Nawi was convicted on March 19 in the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court of assaulting a police officer. Since I've known the man for decades and seen him in action in many extreme situations, I'm certain that the charge is untrue; but let's look at the circumstances. On February 14, 2007, the Israeli authorities sent army bulldozers to demolish several Palestinian shacks in a tiny place called Umm al-Kheir, 25 kilometers southeast of Hebron. Umm al-Kheir embodies the everyday reality of the Israeli occupation like no place else: The 100 or so impoverished Bedouin who call it their home, eking out a livelihood by grazing goats and sheep on the dry, stony hills, live in rickety structures of canvas, tin and stone. The land is theirs: Originally refugees from Tel Arad in the Negev in 1948, they bought it for good money from its Palestinian owners in the early 1950s. Israel, however, has put up a large settlement called Carmel right next to Umm al-Kheir, and like all settlements, Carmel (founded in 1981) is constantly expanding, encroaching on the lands of its Palestinian neighbors. As documented in detail in police records in Kiryat Arba, settlers also regularly attack these neighbors, whom they would like to remove altogether from this area.

House demolitions in the Palestinian territories are routine, and there have been several at Umm al-Kheir, too. The legal justification is always that the houses were built without a permit. But Palestinians living in Area C in the territories have almost no hope of getting a building permit. (To give some idea: on average, in all of Area C, only one building permit is granted to Palestinians each month, whereas some 60 demolitions orders are issued, of which 20 are carried out. Fewer than 5 percent of Palestinian applications for building permits in Area C are approved.) Quite apart from the statistics, there is something ludicrous, even shameful, about sending bulldozers to tear down these Bedouin shanties, especially with the settlers of Carmel building modern villas right next door, on the historical grazing grounds of Umm al-Kheir.

So when the bulldozers showed up, Ezra tried to stop them, in the classic mode of non-violent resistance associated with Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. He lay down in front of the bulldozers, and the soldiers removed him. And when the bulldozers headed for one of the houses, home to a large family, he rushed inside. Two policemen went in after him. All this is documented on film and can be viewed at the Web site www.supportezra.net. The policemen dragged him out. What is not recorded in the video is what happened in the 20 seconds or so inside the hut. The policemen claimed Nawi raised his hand against one of them; Ezra denies this, and anyone who knows him believes him. He is a man committed, in every fiber of his being, to non-violent protest against the inequities of the occupation.

Of course Ezra was arrested, and on the video you can see the soldiers laughing at him, mocking him for his sympathy with the victims. It's not a pretty sight. When the case came to trial, the judge had only the word of the policemen against Ezra's, and naturally she believed the policemen. So, if nothing happens to stop it, Ezra will be going to jail for protesting, peacefully, an act of blatant injustice committed against innocent and helpless civilians. Ezra has been arrested many times for such acts of protest, and he's not about to give up. There's a fine film about him, "Citizen Nawi," made in 2007 by Nissim Mossek; it gives a clear sense of the man, his dedication, his abhorrence of violence of any kind. It also shows what happened at Umm al-Kheir.

You have here the whole misery and cruelty of the occupation in a nutshell. Israel, inside the Green Line, is a modern, more or less (less and less?) democratic state, with a functioning legal system, freedom of the press, and all the other elements we regard as minimal requirements for civilized existence. But inside the occupied Palestinian territories is a shadow state where the only real law is the law of the gun, where land is being taken away from its rightful owners every day, and where the very few who stand up to protest, without violence, like Ezra Nawi, are sent to prison. Bad times generally bring out the worst in most of us.

Prof. David Shulman is an activist in Ta'ayush, an Israeli-Palestinian peace group, and the author of "Dark Hope: Working for Peace in Israel and Palestine" (University of Chicago Press, 2007).